Book Review: Young Adult: Warcross by Marie Lu

 

Player, Hunter, Hacker, Pawn
a 3D Warcross logo of raindow letters in a cube

For the millions who log in every day, Warcross isn’t just a game—it’s a way of life. The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. Struggling to make ends meet, teenage hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down players who bet on the game illegally. But the bounty hunting world is a competitive one, and survival has not been easy. Needing to make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships—only to accidentally glitch herself into the action and become an overnight sensation.

Convinced she’s going to be arrested, Emika is shocked when instead she gets a call from the game’s creator, the elusive young billionaire Hideo Tanaka, with an irresistible offer. He needs a spy on the inside of this year’s tournament in order to uncover a security problem . . . and he wants Emika for the job. With no time to lose, Emika’s whisked off to Tokyo and thrust into a world of fame and fortune that she’s only dreamed of. But soon her investigation uncovers a sinister plot, with major consequences for the entire Warcross empire.

Title: Warcross
Author: Marie Lu
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Near-future Science Fiction (Dystopia?)
Publisher: G.P Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: September 12th, 2017
Format: Hardcover
Length: 368 pages
ISBN-10: 0399547967
ISBN-13: 9780399547966

Series or Standalone: Warcross #1

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Augmented reality, virtual reality, revenge, poverty, hacking, esports, mmos
POV: First person
Tense: Present

Why I Read It: I mean, duh.  Virtual reality gaming tournaments?  Hacking?  Augmented reality?  Diverse cast?  Yeah.

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

Review:

Y’all, I’m about to drop some harsh news.  This was one of my most anticipated reads of 2017.  I even shelled out for the hardcover when Nick couldn’t score us an ARC, where normally I wait for the paperback.  And I’m not sure I got my money’s worth.

If you’ve read the other reviews of Warcross, especially by the book blogging community, you’ve seen pretty much only four- and five-star reviews.  There are a few one and two star reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.  And they tell the most accurate tale.

 

First, let’s touch on the world-building.  This is a near-future Earth, and the action takes place primary in New York and Tokyo.  There should be some world-building to support our premise: brain-computer interfaces plus Google Glass, and the popularity of Warcross.  But the world-building here is sparse and insubstantial.  And the description of the tech is lackluster.  Especially if you read manga, watch anime, or read adult SF, there’s very little new here, and no neat details to make the tech stick out.  Something that even a smidgin of world-building could have accomplished easily.  Although New York and Tokyo are beautiful and diverse cities, we barely see any of them, and what we do see is very generic and cliche.  We hear about the mass poverty and decline of world culture, but a couple college girls living in a shitty apartment about to be evicted is not a convincing interpretation.  Showing a bit more of Em’s roommate Keira could have done a lot to shore up this world-building claim.

Now let’s talk tech.  Our main character is a skilled gamer and talented hacker.  But do Lu’s descriptions live up to the hype?  Not really.  It didn’t seem like Lu knew very much about hacking, and her portrayal of hacking, VR, and the dark pits of the Internet is very old school Neuromancer.  And a pale imitation at that.  Her descriptions of how the tech works are jumbled and confusing, discounting the whole “your brain fills in the gaps”.  If brains could fill in the gaps in VR/AR tech, we’d be at Warcross levels of it right now, much less decades in the future.  Like, that’s even harder to manage than just coding it yourself.  Lu has a history as an artist in the game industry and a rep for being an avid gamer herself.  But it doesn’t feel like she learned much about coding from those experience.  Her security vulnerabilities, which shift major tonnage for the plot, are not particularly believable, much like the hacking sequences.  if you want me to believe a character is a genius hacker, you can’t gloss over her skills to focus on the thriller aspects of your storyline.

Which brings u to my next gripe.  The book is a bit of a page-turner.  The pacing moves very fast.  And that’s not an asset.  The gaming aspect is unconvincing laid over a technological thriller skeleton, kind of like a poor man’s version of the Bourne plot.  And we get barely any time to rest.  This plot and the book in general would have been well-served by another hundred pages or so of development.  Both for the plot and the characters.  On the plot side, the esports aspect is very unrealistic.  Why in the world would a company sponsor a pro sports team in a make-it-or-break-it single tournament?  The way esports and related offline gaming competitions tend to work is with a season very much like a traditional sports season, where players climb up the rankings, build their team, and fine-tune their coordination.  Not going from taking apart last years teams, throwing in newbies in a draft, and hurling them straight into combat.  Not buying it.

And speaking of character development, we get basically zero.  A bit for Em, some standard billionaire playboy for Hideo Tanaka, tinged with stereotypical Asion-dude reticence to engage.  I hated the whole romance plotline, which was boring, insta-lovey, and followed every YA romance trope known to man or woman or alien.  There’s was no excitement and zero chemistry.  And a boss-employee relationship with the man having age, power, and money on his side?  Gross.  I wanted to see “Brought another boy home with you tonight?” Em as hinted at by her roommate in the opening scenes.  Perhaps a fling or romance with a Warcross teammate or opponent.  Maybe she met a cool hacker dude in her claimed deep exploration of the Dark Net.  Look, I loved the childhood crush element present at the beginning.  But the development came nowhere near to my expectations from the dozens of solid YA romance plotlines available these days.

And what did we learn about her team?  A bit of interesting backstory for Roshan, some tidbits of Asher, and zero development from when they met her to when they put everything on the line for a goal she wouldn’t even tell them about for most of the book.  Nuh-uh.  You gotta do better than that.

Now, the last major issue I had was the description.  The world-building was shallow and the character interactions marginal, but what really killed it was the dearth of actual gaming scenes and the bad play-by-play description.  Much like Hideo’s NeuroLink, Lu gave us the barest of suggestions and left most of the work to our brains.  Normally fine in a book, but definitely not when we’re trying to visualize a very poorly-described and unfamiliar video game with supposedly fantastic settings and terrain.

Which is sad, because the game itself had some of the parts I most enjoyed.  Totally dug the random power-ups on the map, which created strategic dilemmas for the players.  Leave yourself open to send someone after permanent flight or go all in on charging your opponent?  Tough decision that makes sense even without vast knowledge of video game mechanics.  I wasn’t so much in love with the whole keeping power-ups between matches and cash money purchases of same.  Definitely overbalances the chances of winning in favor of the wealthy and takes a lot of the skill out of the game.  And you can enter them into official tournaments?  No way.  I could see if they were restricted to ones you got in the actual tournament.  But from regular matches you could grind for special abilities?  Hell no.  I also loved the idea of Emika’s Architect class in between the more traditional Fighters and Thieves.  But we weren’t really given a good idea of the role of any of the classes, what their abilities were, or what Captain Asher’s class was.  It’s difficult to build tension describing a game when you don’t know the rules.  Everyone knows the rules of baseball, which lets the author ratchet up the tension, even when using cliche set-ups like bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, three runs down.  When you invent a game, or use a little-known game as a story element, one of the toughest tasks as a writer is to teach the reader enough about the game so that the action creates tension for them.  The second toughest task is inventing a good game.  It’s unclear if Lu accomplished this because we just don’t know that much about how Warcross works.  J.K. Rowling’s Quidditch is the archetypal examples of an invented game being used as a plot point in fiction.  Lu comes nowhere close to that level of success.

Thus, the two twists at the end are simultaneously predictable and come out of left field, leaving you with a nasty cliffhang-nail.  And all the final pieces seemed to just fall into her hands like magic.

If you take anything away from this review, let it be this:  The idea was great, but the author didn’t give the story, the world, or the characters enough time to fully develop into the fantastic book this could have been.  And you have no idea how much I wanted that to happen.

 

Conclusion: 59 /100 (I was had!!!)
Premise: 9 /10 (So much potential)
Plot: 5 /10 (Serviceable but unoriginal thriller plot)
Setting: 5 /10 (Under-utilized)
Main Character: 5 /10 (Show, don’t tell)
World-building: 4 /10 (Was there any?!)
Romance 3 /10 (No shocks, no butterflies)
Supporting Characters: 6 /10 (Cool, but underdeveloped)
Writing: 5 /10 (Description needs work)
Themes: 8 /10 (So much potential!!!!)
Resolution: 4 /10 (Cliffhanger!)

Buy Or Borrow:  Borrow unless you are already a Marie Lu fan.

Similar Books:

Arena by Holly Jennings
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
Chicago Review of Books
The Book Smugglers
Broadway World
The Young Folks
Publishers Weekly Children’s Book Review
School Library Journal
A Page with a View

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
nook

Audiobooks:

Kobo App
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Book Review: Young Adult Fantasy: Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller

two crossed daggers on a blue background
two crossed daggers

Sallot Leon is a thief, and a good one at that. But gender fluid Sal wants nothing more than to escape the drudgery of life as a highway robber and get closer to the upper-class—and the nobles who destroyed their home.

When Sal steals a flyer for an audition to become a member of The Left Hand—the Queen’s personal assassins, named after the rings she wears—Sal jumps at the chance to infiltrate the court and get revenge.

But the audition is a fight to the death filled with clever circus acrobats, lethal apothecaries, and vicious ex-soldiers. A childhood as a common criminal hardly prepared Sal for the trials. And as Sal succeeds in the competition, and wins the heart of Elise, an intriguing scribe at court, they start to dream of a new life and a different future, but one that Sal can have only if they survive.

Title: Mask of Shadows
Author: Linsey Miller
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication Date: August 29th, 2107
Format: Netgalley eARC
Length: 384 pages
ISBN-10: N/A
ISBN-13: N/A

Series or Standalone: Untitled Duology?

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Revenge, intrigue
POV: First person
Tense: Past

Why I Read It: Saw it on a Goodreads list of 2017 books, liked the description.

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

Review:

There was a lot to like about this book, based on the blurb.  Non-cishet, non-binary main character?  Sweet.  Crazy assassin battles?  Check.  Tale of revenge against heartless political monsters?  Got it.

Now look at that blurb again.  “But gender fluid Sal…”  Neither preceded nor followed by any possible related information.  And that’s exactly how the gender-fluidity was played in the book.  Had basically zero effect on the story or how the character was treated.  There were a couple cliche scenes noting that Sal was gender-fluid, and some prejudice.  But it was marginal and flattened early.  Despite the sparse world-building and Sal’s own comments suggesting that their gender role or lack thereof was not common.  There’s a sop made to the idea that perhaps Sal’s old country was a bit more gender-balanced because of their naming conventions.  But on the whole there’s only gender politics when it could score the author cheap points with the reader, and it is not well-done.  If you click on the Perpetual Pages review, there’s something of an own voices criticism of the gender rep in the book, which was mirrored by my own primarily cis-het opinion, and which also squares with my experience of the way gender-fluidity is treated in our world.

And the presentation of gender fluidity in the book was very odd.  “I dress how I feel” but it only really works if we bring in all our context for gender-presentation from our world.  There was no real look or even hint of if and how gender presentation in Sal’s world compares with ours.

So already we’ve lost one of the main selling points for the book, which appears to be just that: a selling point and not a particularly good-faith attempt to create representation in the YA MC community.  I’m not saying the author didn’t have good intentions.  But the outcome was less than stellar.

Sal’s character in general suffers from skin-deep syndrome.  Though there are references to her minority heritage, they are almost entirely related to the politics between the nations’ nobility.  And the regular citizens never comment at all on issues of race or class or ethnicity.  It could be argued this is a good thing.  But in the book, it just seemed like lack of characterization and world-building.  We hear a lot about political conflict, but it’s all rare air plots between royals.  The citizen on the ground never really gets a view of it, and if weren’t for Sal’s convenient placement at the side of the great powers, you might never have noticed.  The world-building manages to be both info-dumpy and distressingly minimalist.  We don’t learn a lot about the history or culture of Sal’s world, but when it comes up, it drops like the dreaded wall of text in an internet forum argument.  We get only the highest-level hints of the world.  And it’s boring.

Which leads us to the plot.  Which is nothing you haven’t seen before and exactly what it says on the tin.  It’s very predictable, and the universe seems to be conspiring to makes Sal’s life as easy as possible.  There are lots of, “I know it was you, but I can’t prove it in court” moments, and a lot of the tension was from convenient misunderstandings.  We get a huge training montage, but it manages to be simultaneously tedious and shallow.  Also, everyone is waaaaaaaay too okay with this whole, murder each other to death and then we give the last one standing a high-paid government job shtick.  There were so many ways to keep the same level of tension while not making every single character except the Designated Love Interest both unlikable and reprehensible.  And, just imagine Gandolf or Ben Kenobi overseeing this murder-fest, and that’s how the Left Hand characters are played.  Half-mentor, half executioner.  You could certainly be a government assassin and a nice person or even admirable person.  But nobody in this book is, except Sal by authorial fiat.

And speaking of the designated love interest!  The idea seems to be that she is bisexual or pansexual, although she mostly just comes across as Sal-sexual.  She’s way too perfect.  Their meet-cute is far too coincidental.  And her role i the climax is honestly one of the most teeth-grinding tension through stupidity moves I’ve ever seen.  Why can no fantasy protag ever do the obvious safe thing?  Because guess what!  Doing the dumb thing has never, and will never, save the stain on your soul.  Make the damn tough choice and live with it.  You got here through the deaths of dozens of people.  But this last deal is just conveniently too emotionally tough for you?  No.  Despite all the ways this book could have taken to save itself, the climax put fifty-two nails in the coffin on it being either believable or enjoyable.  Literally the only reason I can think of to be curious about the sequel is that this book cliff-hangers you soooooo hard.  And not even a “we’ve solved the immediate problem, and can take a break” cliffhanger.  It’s a fuck-you-too-bad-its-forever-til-the-next-book cliffhanger ending that provides zero resolution.  Bad author!  Bad!

(I do disagree with many, many reviews about the other candidates being to concealed by their masks and numbers.  I found them all identifiable, and even if they had names, the ones who were obviously just bit parts to show candidates dying were never going to be more than their role as redshirts, anyway.)

So yeah, was not a fan of this book.  Any book decent enough to get through and agent and an editorial acquisitions board basically ends up with a 50/100 by default.  If that tells you anything about what it means that I could only scrounge up five further points for this book.  It disappointed me on every single one of the promises in the blurb.

And it’s got a GR rating to support my feelings on this.  But enough people gave it good ratings to stay about 2 stars, so there’s an off chance that some readers may really enjoy it.  I wish them well.

Conclusion: 55 /100 (Readable but boring and predictable)
Premise: 6 /10 (Standard fare)
Plot: 5 /10 (Lots of idiot ball)
Setting: 5 /10 (Very under-developed)
Main Character: 6 /10 (Nice idea, bad execution)
World-building 5 /10 (Lots of info-dumps, no depth)
Genderfluid Rep 5/10 (Tolerable)
Supporting Characters: 6 /10 (Cliche but competent)
Writing: 7 /10 (Decent prose)
Themes: 6 /10 (Interesting, but poorly-handled)
Resolution: 4 /10 (Gross/lame)

Buy Or Borrow: Borrow unless you really love assassin books in YA

Similar Books:
Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
PerpetualPages
The Illustrated Page
GeeklyInc
The YA Kitten
YA Books Central
Kissin Blue Karen
A Backwards Story

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
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Counter Review: Young Adult: Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard

Beautiful Broken Things cover

I was brave
She was reckless
We were trouble

Best friends Caddy and Rosie are inseparable. Their differences have brought them closer, but as she turns sixteen Caddy begins to wish she could be a bit more like Rosie – confident, funny and interesting. Then Suzanne comes into their lives: beautiful, damaged, exciting and mysterious, and things get a whole lot more complicated. As Suzanne’s past is revealed and her present begins to unravel, Caddy begins to see how much fun a little trouble can be. But the course of both friendship and recovery is rougher than either girl realizes, and Caddy is about to learn that downward spirals have a momentum of their own.

Title: Beautiful Broken Things(Fragile Like Us[US])
Author: Sara Barnard
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Contemporary
Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books (UK) / Simon Pulse
Publication Date: February 25th 2016 / July 18th 2017
Format: Ebook
Length: 322 pages
ISBN-10: 150980353X
ISBN-13: 9781509803538

Series or Standalone: Standalone

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: MPDG?, friendship, female friendship, mental illness
POV: First person
Tense: Past tense

Why I Read It: I’ve been struggling to find good YA to read, so I just looked at the Goodreads lists for all YA published in 2016/2017 and got a few that looked interest based on synopsis and reviews.  This was one of them.  I tend to think negative reviews give me more info about whether I’ll like a book than positive ones, and the negative reviews here made this seem interesting.  Plus I have a hard time finding YA to read set outside the US, so…  yeah.

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

Review Notes:  Spoiler warnings?  I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, but there might be a few minor things from the beginning of the book.  No major spoilers, though.

Review:  I’ve called this a “counter-review” for a few reasons.  Not because I think people shouldn’t be allowed differing opinions, but because I think one side of the argument hasn’t been heard as loudly as it deserves.  And because reviews are personal opinion, so what works for one reader might not work for another.

One of the prime criticisms of the book is that the main character is unlikeable.  Selfish, self-centered, jealous, and privileged.  Now, it seems to be that last adjective that drives so many people crazy about our MC Caddy.  After all, she complains she’s never had anything bad happen to her.  And nothing exciting or a combination thereof, either.  And to this, I say, have y’all met a teenager before?  We’re y’all ever teenagers?  ‘Cause this ain’t some odd, gross quirk.  All teenagers, and most people really, are selfish, and self-centered, and get jealous.  And so so many teens think they are dull and boring.

But, you say, why does she envy the tragedies of her friends and family?  Again, have y’all met teenagers?  Have you read YA with its dark and brooding and tragic love interests?  Tragedy is gossip, it is mystery, it can be all the things that teenagers find interesting in others.  Caddy is damn right the bad things that happened to her friend and her sister make them more interesting.  Now, it might be privileged for her to wish something had happened to her instead; her friend and her sister might wish they’d lived a normal and boring life.  But the grass is always greener on the other side exactly because all sides suck.  Not equally, and not in the same way, but Caddy’s feelings and behavior are realistic.  Teens (and adults and kids) feel these things.  They are not rare and do not make Caddy a horrible person.  I’m not saying they aren’t flaws.

And the same goes for her complaints about her parents and her life with them.  Caddy is very lucky in many ways, but that doesn’t mean she’s not allowed to have her own problems that matter to her.

Now, Caddy takes these idle thoughts and puts them into practice.  She makes a mistake.  A big one.  But again, not uncommon.  She hurts someone with her petty jealousy.  But so have most people.

I liked that Barnard was willing to portray the characters realistically, even in their worst moments, because that’s what makes them interesting as characters.  I liked that the book almost entirely left out romance.  Romance and the pursuit of romance are going to be serious focuses for many teenagers.  But they aren’t all there is.  The fact that the books focuses on female friendship was one of the things that most recommended it to me.  And that Barnard was willing to show that friendship can be a complex relationship with good and bad intentions and good and bad outcomes is something you don’t see in a lot of YA.  Sure, you see frenemies and toxic, abusive friendships.  But to me, this wasn’t that.  It was toxic, but it was also earnest, and it wasn’t based on total lack of other choices for the characters becoming friends.

Caddy’s friendship with Suzanne was based on misunderstandings of who Suzanne really was, what friendship is supposed to achieve, and what the proper way to help someone is.  And those are issues that teenagers everywhere face every day.  The answers aren’t always easy to find.  Teenagers often don’t know them.  Adults don’t know them.

And comparing herself to her friends is also a reality of many teenagers, especially with social media allowing us to curate our lives and present a false front even to people who may feel close to us.  When you’re trying to figure out who you are, trying to figure out how you fit together with others, shorthand and labels are a convenient and tempting way to approach the issue.  The girl whose sister died.  The bipolar kid.  Those are simplistic, but humans are all about simplifying.  Something, even something tragic, is better than nothing.  That’s why you get cliques, though they’re over-played in the media.  That’s why people so jealously guard their obscure fandoms and interests from the mainstream.  I’m not saying that’s the right response or the best response, and neither is this book.  In fact, I’d argue the books exposes those reactions, Caddy’s reactions, as flawed approaches that one should try to avoid.

And, getting to the heart of what drives the plot, the book’s depiction of mental illness and how it scares you into hiding from people, even from friends and family, and how people try to pass the blame to the ill person was a major positive for me.  You think you understand people, but there’s a good chance that you don’t.  Just like Caddy misunderstood the impact of the bad things that happened to those around her, leaving her envious, she misunderstood the motivations for her two friends’ actions, leading her into making poor choices.

In one scene(this is not a major spoiler), she leaves her friend at a party alone with a guy to care for another friend.  There’s been a lot of pushback in reviews about this scene, but personally, I thought it was very well done.  Caddy thought she understood what her friend wanted, and because she didn’t, she made a mistake that damaged their friendship.  People make mistakes like this all the time.  It’s what’s used to cause tension in many romantic relationships or romantic pursuits, where one side thinks they know what the other wants, but they don’t.  Characters in YA novels get held to a very high standard for proper behavior.  Especially female characters.

And I think that’s valuable, both for creating good stories, and for any moral imperative folks might think YA books should support.  But sometimes, the standard is too high, and just like in real life, people pick and choose based on their subjective personal feelings whether to hold a character to account.  Have you as a reader or a person ever seen a guy criticized for leaving a friend alone at a party with a girl?  Maybe.  But it’s pretty uncommon in my experience.  And perhaps it shouldn’t be.

Neither Caddy nor the novel surrounding her are perfect.  But just as Caddy believes no one will be interested in her if her life is perfect and grief-less, neither is a novel where nothing bad happens and the character never makes any mistakes likely to be popular with readers.  We treat real-life human lives as narratives as much as we do fictional ones, and if there’s one thing Caddy gets perfectly right in this book, it’s understanding that, even if subconsciously, even if she doesn’t necessarily draw the best conclusions from that premise.

You can probably guess from the jacket copy and the reveiws, and the existence of a trade published novel, that Caddy gets her significant life event, and that it stems from her flawed way of inserting herself into the world.  Whether or not it makes her cool and interesting, or teaches her any valuable lessons is something you’ll have to find out from actually reading this book.

There’s nothing spectacularly original or thrilling about the individual pieces Sara Barnard has put together to build this book.  But the way she has put them together is something you don’t get to see too often in YA, even if the execution is lacking in a few places.  (Particularly, the way the supporting characters had drives of their own rather than being props for the MC to explore her world.)  And the ending–though it gave a bit at the end, blunting the force of the lesson for the MC–was exactly the sort of bittersweetness I enjoy from a good contempary YA.

Conclusion: 77/100 (A strong showing, though not without flaws)
Premise: 7/10 (Seen it before, but not this well-explored)
Plot: 7/10 (Nothing new, but supports some really interesting themes)
Setting: 8/10 (Well-described)
Main Character: 8/10 (Can be a tad annoying, but interesting complex)
Friendship: 8/10 (Shows a contemp novel can stand without a romance b-plot)
Mental Illness: 8/10 (Well-explored)
Supporting Characters: 8/10 (Well-portrayed, clearly had their own agendas)
Writing: 7/10 (Competent)
Themes: 8/10 (Well-developed)
Resolution: 8/10 (Not perfect, but striking)

Buy Or Borrow:  If you’re worried that Caddy isn’t the kind of flawed character that really interests you, you should probably borrow a copy of Beautiful Broken Things;  But if you’re curious to find out why exactly I differ so strongly from the many critical reviews of the book and its main character, I think it’s worth your money to purchase a copy.

Similar Books:

N/A

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
The Guardian –  Childrens’ Books
The Bibliomaniac
Queen of Contemporary
Happy Indulgence Books
Debbish.com
The Books Are Everywhere

Buy Links:
Amazon (US)
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
nook

Book Review: Young Adult: After the Fall by Kate Hart

After the Fall

A YA debut about a teen girl who wrestles with rumors, reputation, and her relationships with two brothers.

Seventeen-year-old Raychel is sleeping with two boys: her overachieving best friend Matt…and his slacker brother, Andrew. Raychel sneaks into Matt’s bed after nightmares, but nothing ever happens. He doesn’t even seem to realize she’s a girl, except when he decides she needs rescuing. But Raychel doesn’t want to be his girl anyway. She just needs his support as she deals with the classmate who assaulted her, the constant threat of her family’s eviction, and the dream of college slipping quickly out of reach. Matt tries to help, but he doesn’t really get it… and he’d never understand why she’s fallen into a secret relationship with his brother. The friendships are a precarious balance, and when tragedy strikes, everything falls apart. Raychel has to decide which pieces she can pick up – and which ones are worth putting back together.

Title: After the Fall
Author: Kate Hart
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Contemporary
Publisher: Farrar, Straus. & Giroux
Publication Date: January 24, 2017
Format: E-book
Length: 336 pages
ISBN-10: 0374302715
ISBN-13: 9780374302719

Series or Standalone: Standalone

Literary Awards: N/A

Themes: consent, grief, romance, college, small towns
POV: Dual first-person
Tense: Present

Reviewer: Nick and Marisa

Where We Got It: Marisa bought it after hearing about it on goodreads and loaned it to me to see if I agreed with her.  Spoilers:  I did.

Marisa’s Cover Notes:  Love the colors, but the image is kinda boring, I guess.  It does connect to the plot, but I wish there was more emotion in it or a more concrete image from the story.  This could be the cover of any random YA novel.  (Usually I listen to music when I read, but this time I was watching TV “with” my mom, so no soundtrack.)

Review:

Nick

Technically I’m here to give the male perspective, I guess.  This was originally Marisa’s review, but she wanted to know if being a guy changed my perception of the story and characters.  A little bit, I guess, but not much.

Marisa

I have two main complaints about this book.  One, the pacing was all over the place because the author tried to stuff way too much stuff into one story without doing the enough build-up for it all.  Either the romantic plot, the assault plot, the what am I doing after high school plot or the surprise twist would have been enough to carry the story on their own, especially given the several b-plots in the book.  But all at once was too ambitious.  I don’t think the author had the skill to pull it off, though some authors might have had.

My second issue is that the characters were all annoying as all heck, and I couldn’t really sympathize with any of the main characters.  Maybe that’s because the author didn’t do a good enough job presenting their background?

Nick

I happen to agree with Marisa on both those points.  Further, I think she agreed with me that the so-called “feminist” issues in the book were not handled well.  The assault especially was believable, but the characters all responded way too after-school special to them.  In fact, Marisa pointed out one line in the book was an almost perfect rip-off of the popular quote that girls aren’t vending machines you put kindness coins into until sex falls out.  I am 100% behind tackling these issues in YA.  But I think it’s important to handle the issue in a way that comes off as a natural follow-up the the events of the story and also to not sound preachy.

Marisa

There was a really-strong sense of authorial intrusion in the way the characters talked to Raychel about her assault.  In particular one character was oddly flip-floppy in how strongly she pushed to present the assault as rape but then said reporting it was a waste of time.  And this character did not feel like they were stepping into the narrative naturally.  It felt very forced.  I think that could turn off a lot of readers to the truths the author was trying to convey.  I’ve seen this book compared to Courtney Summers, but it’s miles apart in the way the similar subject matter is handled.  It was very disappointing.

Nick

I think what it comes down to is that this book was all over the place, and that made it hard to address any particular aspect of it with the kind of nuance the topics it covers deserved.  It felt rather slow in the first half, and rushed in the second half, because the author couldn’t seem to decide what was the most important point and so she found herself with a lot of loose ends to tie up.

Marisa

I think Nick’s right.  If the author had picked three of the moderate to major themes/plots threads to focus on, she could have written a really good novel exploring those things.  But as it is, the book just feels shallow in a lot of places.  And I don’t think that gives it enough power to really drive home the author’s points to the audience.  The premise is good, but the execution is severely lacking.

Conclusion: 61/100 (Author’s reach exceeds her grasp)
Premise: 8/10 (So much wasted potential)
Plot: 4/10 (Ugh?  Ugh.)
Setting: 7/10 (Very solid, but could have used more development)
Main Character(s): 6/10 (All kinda jerks and unlikeable cutouts)
Romance: 5/10 (Liked him, but didn’t get her attraction)
Twist: 4/10 (Out of nowhere and seemed kind cheap)
Supporting Characters: 7/10 (Better than the MCs)
Writing: 7/10 (Competent but lacking spark)
Themes: 6/10 (Points for ambition, no cookie for execution)
Resolution: 7/10 (Strongest part of the book?)

Buy Or Borrow:  If you must read it, we recommend you borrow from a friend of the library.

Similar Books:

All the Rage or anything from Courtney Summers

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
Publishers Weekly
TeenReads
Portrait of a Book
YA Bibliophile
Pretty Deadly Reviews

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
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Book Review: Young Adult: The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie

The Abyss Surrounds Us cover

Cas has fought pirates her entire life. But can she survive living among them?

For Cassandra Leung, bossing around sea monsters is just the family business. She’s been a Reckoner trainer-in-training ever since she could walk, raising the genetically-engineered beasts to defend ships as they cross the pirate-infested NeoPacific. But when the pirate queen Santa Elena swoops in on Cas’s first solo mission and snatches her from the bloodstained decks, Cas’s dream of being a full-time trainer seems dead in the water.

There’s no time to mourn. Waiting for her on the pirate ship is an unhatched Reckoner pup. Santa Elena wants to take back the seas with a monster of her own, and she needs a proper trainer to do it. She orders Cas to raise the pup, make sure he imprints on her ship, and, when the time comes, teach him to fight for the pirates. If Cas fails, her blood will be the next to paint the sea.

Title: The Abyss Surrounds Us
Author: Emily Skrutskie, Twitter
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Post-apocalyptic SF
Publisher: Flux, Twitter
Publication Date: February 8, 2016
Format: Paperback
Length: 273 pages
ISBN-10: 0738746916
ISBN-13: 9780738746913

Series or Standalone: The Abyss Surrounds Us #1

Literary Awards: N/A

Themes: QUILTBAG, Romance, Pirates, climate science fiction
POV: 1st Person Singular
Tense: Present

Reviewer: Marisa Greene

Where I Got It: Recced by a friend

Cover Notes:  Holy crap, guys.  Loved this cover!  Normally I’m not much for textured titles, but this just fit so well.  The light effects are a bit flashy for me, but they’re story related, so I’m dealing with it.

Review:  

There are good and bad things about this book.  I don’t love the first person present here.  It doesn’t feel like it serves the purpose I expect that set-up to serve.  The pacing doesn’t match it, mainly.  But I did like Cas’s voice, so that’s something, I guess.  I appreciated her snark in the face of adversity.  I wish the main characters were fleshed out a bit more, too.  Like, I get Swift is the mysterious stranger.  But I could have done with a bit more personality.

Now, the premise of the book is fantastic.  War leviathans?  Sign me up.  Also, the romance angle.  Although the execution was a bit lacking in this book, there’s a sequel.  It gets better, I think.  I should take now to mention I’ve already read the sequel.  A lot of stuff makes more sense, and more plot lines get tied up or at least explored, if you read the sequel.  It’s basically one story rather than two sequential stories.  I could still wish some things developed faster, but that’s how this structure works.

Although I liked Cas’s voice, I wish her character had been a bit less bland.  Besides her Reckoner training training, there’s not a ton to the character.  Perhaps it’s because the action/adventure part started so early.  But I would have liked more understanding of her relationship to her family.  More about who she was besides being a trainer in training.  I think this lack of development hurts her character in this book and the sequel.  It’s a lot more interesting for me when someone has to make tough decisions if I feel I know enough about them to justify both the internal conflict and their choice.

One of the main things I liked about this book was that Cas was both not white and not straight.  The sexual orientation aspect was really well handled, to me.  Not preaching, judging, ham-handedness.  But she seems so bland it’s hard to see any influence from her Asian heritage.  Maybe that’s how it should be.  Either way, it’s nice to see some diversity.

The setting for this story is pretty important.  It’s something of a climate science fiction story, with rising water levels and the break-up of big countries into smaller political units.  Thus the need for the Reckoners.  Although it’s only vaguely sketched out in the book, I think it works well as a backdrop, and there’s nothing that makes you feel like it’s a cheap gimmick.  It informs the attitudes of both the privileged “shore” people with national citizenship, and the nation-less “pirates”.

The supporting characters here, especially as you read the sequel, are very neatly-drawn.  Although the main villain in the first book is a bit one-note, banging the cruel manipulation drum non-stop, the rest of the “bad” characters have some nice nuance to them, which is something you don’t always see in these sorts of stories.

Because it’s the first of a duology, the conclusion leaves a bit to be desired, but it pays off by the end of the second book.  The only plot-hole was the whole trope of animals tasing human blood.  It was played up a lot by Cas, but in the end, as the SBTB review says, it didn’t seem to have much effect?

Finally, the romance angle was cool.  There’s a really fantastic scene where the concept of consent comes up.  You’ll know it when you see it.

Conclusion: 78/100 (Has its flaws, but totally worth it for the awesome sea monsters)
Premise: 10/10 (For awesome, even if the science is bullshit)
Plot: 7/10 (Pretty standard kidnapping story)
Setting: 8/10 (Could have been deeper but worked well)
Main Character: 7/10 (Pretty standard YA protag)
Orientation: 8/10 (No yuck, but little relevance?)
Romance: 8/10 (An extra point for dealing with consent issues)
Supporting Characters: 8/10 (Loved ’em)
Writing: 8/10 (Very smooth aside from the tense and perspective issues)
Themes: 7/10 (Standard but well-executed)
Resolution: 7/10 (First-book-itis)

Buy Or Borrow:  Buy or borrow, either one is a good choice here.

Similar Books:

Can’t think of any obvious similar books off the top of my head.  Paolo Bacigalupi’s Shipbreaker series, maybe?

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
Kirkus Reviews
Publishers Weekly
Books, Bones, and Buffy
Rich in Color
The Lesbrary (major first-half spoilers!)

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
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Magical Realism Mondays: The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle

a girl falling upside-down

It’s the accident season, the same time every year. Bones break, skin tears, bruises bloom.

The accident season has been part of seventeen-year-old Cara’s life for as long as she can remember. Towards the end of October, foreshadowed by the deaths of many relatives before them, Cara’s family becomes inexplicably accident-prone. They banish knives to locked drawers, cover sharp table edges with padding, switch off electrical items – but injuries follow wherever they go, and the accident season becomes an ever-growing obsession and fear.

But why are they so cursed? And how can they break free?

Title: The Accident Season
Author: Moira Fowley-Doyle
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Magical Realism
Publisher: Transworld Publishers, Corgi Childrens’
Publication Date: August 18, 2015
Format: Paperback
Length: 280 pages
ISBN-10: 055257130X
ISBN-13: 9780552571302

Series or Standalone: Standalone

Literary Awards: N/A

Themes: Abuse, Family
POV: 1st person
Tense: present

Reviewer: Marisa Greene

 

Administrative Note from Nick:  Due to a WordPress post-scheduling error, this is the unfinished draft of this review.  The full, complete review will be up as soon as Marisa has a chance to log in and make corrections.  Thanks.

Note 2:  From Marisa: I’m so sorry, guys!  I don’t know what happened!  I like to get all the non-review stuff out of the way before I actually sit down to write the review and save it as a draft.  Somehow that draft got published instead of the real post, but it’s a hassle to delete this and fix all the links, so I’m just copying and pasting the review into this post.

Where I Got It: Loaned to me by Atsiko after I heard great recs for it. I love Magical Realism, so I was very excited when Atsiko offered to loan me this book.  The premise sounded real interesting.  The cover was beautiful, as I mention below.

Cover Notes: The cover was beautiful.  I wish I saw more covers like this in YA.  I like the out of focus look and the odd orientation.  The font is nice, too.

Review: 

The writing of this book is the kind people like to call atmospheric.  it really makes you feel like you imagine the characters feel.  Which is odd in a 1st person narrative, but really nifty.  The opening is a bit contemplative for my taste, I think.  Very introspective and a lot of what I’d call exposition.  I don’t necessarily love the main character, Cara’s voice.  it’s a bit bland for my taste, although you might argue that contrasts well with the magical side of magical realism.  It’s a lot easier to take seriously when described by such an every girl.  Whereas if her best friend, Bea, was the narrator, her wild world-view would ground the piece.  A re-write from Bea’s perspective could be very illuminating, though probably not worth it for the author or most readers.

To be honest, the major flaw with the narrator is that besides her ex-step-brother Sam, I find basically all of the other main characters more interesting.  While they are built from their own stereotypes, the author does a great job of making it seem like they have lives beyond the narrator.  They do things with each other that don’t involve Cara, and that they must know would even be hurtful to her.  In a lot of YA, there’s so much focus on the narrator or their antagonist or their LI, that the relationships between the secondary characters get underfed.  The side characters and their independence are definitely one of the strengths of this book.

The plot is not a fast-paced headlong rush of action.  Even some contemporary or magical realist stories insist on a fast pace with a few slow interludes.  But I think Accident Season does very well with the slow unfolding and a few quick scenes instead.  I also enjoyed how, like in Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls, the normal activities of teenagers function so well to drive the plot forward.  It never seemed like anything was forced to advance the plot.  That’s a rare trait in a lot of books, YA and Adult.

The conclusion was a bit disappointing for me, especially given how much I enjoyed the build-up.  It fit the Magical Realist pattern beautifully, but it seemed a bit too pat, especially in the romantic arcs.  It’s quite obvious in my eyes who Cara will end up with, but two of the side characters ended up together in the one seeming authorial intrusion in the novel.  And the implications of that coupling irritated me.  They seemed a bit sexist, I think.  And if that had to be the pairing, I would have preferred it to not work out, be a sort of a tragic miss or just a case of unfortunate circumstances.

While there’s nothing new or innovative in the underpinnings of this story, or how it worked out, I think the arrangement of pieces was very adept and satisfying.

The one thing I’m unsure about is the setting.  This could really have been set in any English-speaking place.  There wasn’t anything in particular that anchored the book in small-town Ireland, County Mayo.  It could as easily have been in the Midwestern or Northeastern US in the month October.  I was a bit disappointed by that.  Or maybe I just missed the clues?

The premise of the accident season, which I really should have touched on earlier given its titular role in the story was one of my favorite parts of the story.  Even as just a character superstition without the magical realist elements, I think it could have been a strong basis for a story, even this story.  It’s unique as a device in my experience, but it’s totally believable that a real person would think this way, and the author does nothing to ruin that effect.

Overall, this was a solid story with some really fun elements.  It sits in the middle of my list of favorite Magical Realism novels.  I look forward to further work by this author.

Conclusion: 76/100 (A good book, though not great)
Premise: 9/10 (Accident season: really cool and original)
Plot: 8/10 (Solid and few plot holes, if any)
Setting: 7/10 (Atmospheric and believable, though not rooted strongly in a specific real-world place)
Main Character: 7/10 (Not bad, but overshadowed by the side-characters)
Magical Realism: 9/10 (Beautifully balanced ambiguity between reality and whimsy)
Romance: 4/10 (Predictable and boring, even disappointing)
Supporting Characters: 9/10 (Well-drawn, independent actors)
Writing: 8/10 (Beautiful and served the story)
Themes: 8/10 (Not new, but very well-explored)
Resolution: 7/10 (Good parts and bad)

Buy Or Borrow:  It’s definitely worth buying if you’re a big fan of (YA) magical realism.  If you like to visit but not stay, maybe borrow it from a friend.

Similar Books:

Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry

Interviews:

Writing.ie

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
TeenReads
The Book Smugglers (at Kirkus)
It Starts at Midnight
MuggleNet
Please Feed the Bookworm

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
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Magical Realism Mondays

A popular new genre in YA fiction is that of Magical Realism.  There are various definitions, but it is essentially a literary genre in which the fantastic is presented as no more remarkable than the mundane.  Also referred to as fabulism or new fabulism, it generally consists one no more than a couple fantastic elements in an otherwise normal world, generally unexplained, though often with an alternative rationalist explanation not privileged over the fantastic by the author or even sometimes the characters.

 

As of this leap day, we will be instituting a new feature, Magical Realism Mondays, where on the first or second Monday of each month, Marisa will be reviewing, possibly with spoilers, a Magical Realist YA novel, beginning with  Moira Fowley-Doyle’s The Accident Season.  Spoiler alerts will be posted if necessary.

Regularly scheduled ARC and post-pub reviews will still be posted, just not on these day.